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Israel Rejects U.N. Chief’s Request to Lift Blockade on Lebanon

August 30, 2006 at 6:05 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Turning the Israeli-Lebanon cease-fire into real peace. The U.N. secretary-general has been in the region trying to do just that. We have a report from John Sparks of Independent Television News.

JOHN SPARKS, ITV News Correspondent: Day three of Kofi Annan’s 11-day Middle East tour, featuring consecutive meetings with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert; Vice Premier Shimon Peres; the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

There were no complaints from the U.N. team about access to senior Israeli politicians. Their problem is all about momentum. The U.N.-brokered cease-fire has held for 16 days now, but the implementation of the U.N. resolution, meant to bring lasting peace between Israel and Lebanon, has bogged down.

The secretary-general has spent three days now in both countries, listening, talking, cajoling. But he hasn’t got much to show for his efforts, other than to restate his belief in basic principles.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. Secretary-General: This exercise in full implementation of 1701 gives us a foundation and a basis to move forward and settle the differences between Israel and Lebanon once and for all.

JOHN SPARKS: The United Nations is facing mounting criticism in Lebanon. Many here cite the organization’s apparent lack of activity after 34 days of fighting. The hope that the secretary-general would be able to declare an end to the Israeli blockade or order a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the south of the country have gone unrealized.

Despite a direct plea from Kofi Annan to lift the blockade, Ehud Olmert refused, stating the U.N. resolution would have to be implemented in full. “It’s not a smorgasbord. It’s not a buffet,” he said, the inference being the Lebanese can’t pick and choose what they like.

EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel: I believe that Resolution 1701 should be a cornerstone that creates an opportunity to build a new reality between Israel and Lebanon.

JOHN SPARKS: The prime minister’s words did not go down well in Beirut. Indicating just how poor post-war relations are, the Lebanese leader stated there would no direct talks, no cornerstones of a future peace.

FOUAD SINIORA, Prime Minister of Lebanon (through translator): There is no direct contact between us, and we cannot seek any agreement with anything like this. Our position is clear: Lebanon is the last Arab country that will sign a peace agreement with Israel. Only after 300 hundred million Arabs have agreed to peace with Israel, that is when Lebanon will have peace with Israel.

JOHN SPARKS: The continuing blockade has certainly helped to fuel Lebanese anger towards Israel. Beirut International Airport is now functioning again. The terminal is open, but the flights are scarce. The government claims the Lebanese economy is being crippled.

Israel imposed it’s blockade of Lebanon on July 13th, the day after Hezbollah seized two of its soldiers. You can now fly to Beirut, but planes must go through the Jordanian capital of Amman for security checks. Israel has permitted only two airlines — Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines and Royal Jordanian — to operate with limited schedules.

European carriers, including British Airways, are still waiting for Israeli permission to resume flights to Beirut. Use of Lebanese ports requires Israeli permission. No ferries are permitted, although boats carrying humanitarian relief have been allowed through. All roads, including the Beirut-Damascus highway, have been destroyed, forcing people to travel on smaller mountain roads.

ELIAS MURR, Defense Minister, Lebanon (through translator): One of Israel’s main interest is to put pressure on Lebanon economically. That’s because we are a principal competitor in the Middle East.

JOHN SPARKS: Twenty-five Spanish soldiers did touch down today at Beirut’s airport, a tangible sign of the United Nations’ activity in the region so far. Still, many thousands more are required, just one requirement of many needed to make this cease-fire permanent.